Archive for September 2007

The last straw

15 September 2007

At least to myself, I gripe about the cable company Comcast all the time. There are so many reasons why I call it the Evil Empire. A supposedly digital cable provider should not have to require me to place decoder boxes at all my locations, yet I must because the system here is a holdover from a former cable company that Comcast took over years ago. And whenever the audio goes silent or I see that familiar pixillated freeze-frame, both signs of the signal dropping out, I just think of the rats’ nest in the back alley on the pole that carries my cable drop and say “of course.” If the rest of the system looks anything like this photo, no wonder the cable farts at least once in every hour-long program I watch.

I began to get fed up several months ago when I sent an e-mail to Comcast requesting that they carry NASA-TV. This is perhaps not the most exciting channel—even during active missions it carries long stretches of silent, seemingly static shots of Mission Control—but it’s educational, and has the most direct launch coverage. (By “direct” I mean it doesn’t have extraneous graphics and commentary stepping on the video and audio like most other news outlets are wont to do.) On top of that, it’s a government channel—so it’s free to broadcast and costs the cable company nothing except a channel slot on a system rife with unused bandwidth and duplicated feeds.

Comcast’s response? A boilerplate “we have no plans to carry this channel now or ever, but we’ll forward your request to our marketing department”… where at best it will be a single data point in a feedback survey overwhelmed by requests for the Fox Reality channel or some such crap.

Oh, by the way, both of the major players in the satellite TV market—Dish Network and DirecTV—carry NASA-TV. And Comcast doesn’t even have to worry about launching satellites.

Comcast’s “Are You Enlightened?” ad campaign… don’t get me started.

Now there’s this whole brouhaha between Comcast and the Big Ten Network. In short, BTN wants to be carried on the basic tier, Comcast wants to put it into a premium sports tier. There’s no middle ground here, and so Comcast will not carry BTN.

There are no good guys in this argument.

BTN says it wants to be in the basic tier so viewers will not have to pay extra for it, and says it will make its revenue in advertising. Yet reports say BTN is charging the cable companies $1.10 per viewer in the eight-state Big Ten region; for BTN to pretend that cable will not pass this cost on directly to the consumer is disingenuous.

Meanwhile, Comcast says BTN is taking away our right to choose our programming by making everyone pay for a service that only some will desire. Perhaps, but Comcast omits to mention that the advertising opportunity inherent in BTN would cover the carriage fee without placing the burden on the consumer.

Regardless, from this consumer’s standpoint Comcast is what’s preventing me from receiving BTN, and I’d at least like to choose for myself, even if having BTN might not benefit me much when it comes to watching my beloved 2007 National Champion Spartan hockey team this winter (since they’re in the CCHA, not the Big Ten).

So I finally decided to cut the cable and go with satellite. It seems to me that there’s a definite benefit in having the dish on my roof, where it’s accessible, rather than across town behind a barbed-wire fence; and in having that dish connected to my TV via cables mounted securely to my brick walls, rather than hanging out in the wind and weather on umpteen wooden poles throughout the city.

This afternoon around twenty after four p.m., during the halftime of the U-M/ND game (as usual I was rooting for the blimp, but no such luck), I reached out to pick up the phone and schedule an installation —

— and the cable went out. Seriously. Part of me (the paranoid conspiracy theorist part) decided that Comcast was watching me and knew what I was about to do, and went dark in an attempt to get me to call 1-800-COMCAST instead. I almost did, too, out of habit.

But then I thought better of it, and called for a dish.

Then I called Comcast, which tried to deter me via an automated system that said they were aware of the problem and would have it fixed by 6:33 p.m., and would I like an automated phone call telling we when the system was back on? I forced my way through to a human operator and politely demanded a credit for the day, which (as always) she agreed to readily. She also placed me on the system-restored-auto-call list.

The cable finally came back on around 8:50 p.m., for 3.5 hours of downtime.

It’s now past 11 p.m., and the automated call has not yet come through. (It finally came through at 10:40 a.m. the next day.)

I was tempted to tell the operator that I was calling on behalf of everyone whose cable had just gone out, and that I wanted Comcast to credit each of these accounts with a free day of cable. But I didn’t, for two reasons: 1) I’ll wager the computer system she’s using isn’t capable of this kind of input, and 2) those other folks can call for their own damn credit.

And I guess that my point. If you’re still suffering with Comcast cable (why?), I highly recommend that you call them every time your cable goes out, even for a few seconds. Follow the automated prompts until you get to a human being, and politely but firmly ask that they credit your account for the outage. Inform them that the outage utterly ruined whatever it was you were watching, and that it was the only program you had planned to watch today, and so the momentary loss was the equivalent of an entire day’s outage. They’ll credit your account, without argument, and well they should.

CTA’s doom and gloom

12 September 2007

The Chicago Transit Authority is up to its old tricks, and on Sunday it will cancel umpteen bus routes if it doesn’t receive the state funding it wants. The death spiral continues, and this latest development is a serious nose-dive. But some of the CTA’s rhetoric begs closer scrutiny…

Percentage of operating budget
that comes from public sources
Chicago 48
Philadelphia 61
Boston 66
Atlanta 68
San Francisco 73
Los Angeles 74
Source: CTA 2006 Budget, 2005 National Transit Database

This chart now appears in every train car and bus on the system, along with a plea to “please write your representative.” But note the fine print on that chart. The numbers for the CTA were taken from the 2006 budget, while all the other entries are from the respective cities’ 2005 budgets. The actual value for the CTA in 2005 is more like 59 percent. Still at the low end, but no longer dramatically so.

Meanwhile, as an example of how the other numbers might be fudged, the value for San Francisco is overstated—it’s actually the figure for the MUNI alone, and does not include the BART, which is significantly lower. The MUNI gets a lot of local funding (though still not nearly as much as the CTA does in municipal funds) in part because of the cable car system, which is hugely expensive relative to the passenger miles travelled and which is an intentional loss leader due to its tourism value. Anyway, the CTA alone spends more money in a year than do the MUNI and BART combined.

It would be more accurate to compare the CTA to a similar system in terms of the population in the service area, and Philadelphia’s SEPTA comes close (3.3 million potential passengers, versus 3.7 million for CTA). In this situation, CTA comes out looking not so bad—the operating cost per service area capita is almost identical—while the operating cost per passenger mile is better: 53 cents per mile for CTA, 61 cents per mile for SEPTA.

Yet this omits one major factor: deferred maintenance. None of the many figures in the National Transit Database report mention how much was spent on maintaining the system, nor compare that against the total capital value of the system itself. And if this report from the NTSB is any indication, upkeep—and management of same—has been sorely lacking for a very long time. Not spending money to fix a system that is rapidly declining into decrepitude is a fine way to keep operating costs down, at least in the short term.

After all, deferring maintenance on the rusted-out rail clips and plates in the Blue Line subway was essentially cost-free—until a derailment in July 2006 caused over a million dollars in equipment, track, and signal damage.

(Follow-up for May 2008… The derailment continues to escalate costs: the first of more than 100 resulting lawsuits has been settled out of court, to the tune of $1.25 million.)